Even if some music fans may be burned out on straight performance livestreams after 16 months, no one at Amazon will take the bait to knock the format — they’ve used it before, and they may well end up using it again. But for this Amazon Prime Day, at least, there was a clear mandate to take a different approach to the all-star music special that usually presages and promotes the company’s big sales event of the year. Their Prime Day special for 2021 brings in three of the most charismatic stars in contemporary music — H.E.R., Kid Cudi and Billie Eilish — for what amount to lavish mini-musicals.
The three specials-within-a-special, all about 25 minutes each, start airing today. They represent an unprecedented level of cooperation and synergy between Amazon Prime, Amazon Music and the division that produces original filmic content, Amazon Studios.
If there were a fourth division called Amazon Travel, maybe that would be a part of it, too, given the unusual settings for these three films, all of which offer a “take me away from all this” feeling of escapism. Only one is set in a place viewers could actually travel to: Eilish’s is set in Paris (though it was actually filmed on the Universal backlot). The other two take place in getaways only accessible through Hollywood magic: H.E.R.’s takes place in a long-gone mecca for Black culture in Los Angles, the Dunbar Hotel (with Taraji P. Henson as co-star), and Cudi’s involves a trip to the moon.
The productions may look lavish, but nearly everything about them, beyond the initial discussions, took place in about an eight-week period leading up to the first week of June.
“The intensity of the work certainly over the last two months was quite large — certainly the production, the filming over the course of a few weeks, and then going into post-production to edit and make the final piece pull together,” says Ryan Redington, VP of music industry for Amazon Music. “Leading up to that, there were lots of conversations with, obviously, the artists’ management teams, the record labels and artists themselves just around the creative ideas. And so there was some legwork that went in before the real work kind of went to market.”
Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios, doesn’t think anything about the process suffered in having nearly all of the work done on these films in April and May for a June debut.
“You know, sometimes things that come together quickly, when you have artists that are in such high demand, are the best things,” Salke says. “They have a window, they like the idea, and they like the idea of it being in front of the paywall.” (Viewing for the next 30 days is open to everyone, Prime subscriber or not.) “They’re excited to have the creative freedom to execute on something, especially in the case of Billie co-directing. When those things can come together in these busy artists’ lives who are in such demand, it’s almost like the condensed amount of time is an asset to that, I think. That’s just my theory, but I think it can make things a little simpler to just be like: Here’s the commitment; we’re in and out. And I think everybody felt really supported and confident that we would meet all the deadlines. It’s a very organized team across different parts of the organization. There’s no shortage of support on this one to make it happen.”
“If we told you we actually wrapped filming the 1st of June…,” says Alaina Bartels, head of talent synergy and special projects for Amazon Studios. She lets the implied disbelief in that statement trail off. “It’s been a pretty crazy roller coaster. This idea came about, I want to say, eight or nine weeks ago, and we really hit the ground running, then filmed over the course of three weeks.”
The execs all reiterate that the artists took the lead on the basic concepts, deciding what particular niche of world-building they wanted to do. “Whether it be Billie, H.E.R. or Cudi, we really took their lead,” Salke says.
When it came time to shoot, says Bartels (who works under Salke and spearheaded the show alongside Cameron Farrelly, principal creative director for Amazon Music), “H.E.R., we shot on location in a few very historical L.A. bars that really represent like what it would feel like if the Dunbar Hotel still existed today. Cudi, we shot on XR stages in Burbank. From a technical point, that had the longest lead-in, because we’re making thousands of super high-def worlds in space that were then projected. That was a really fun one to be showing to Cudi,, because they were like, ‘This is what it’s going to look like when you’re going up in the rocket. What do you think of the rocket? What colors do you want to be seen you’re going through when you depart to space?’ And I think that everybody who’s a Cudi fan, having seen him doing different volumes of ‘Man on the Moon,’ to now actually see him in space is really incredible. And BIllie, for Paris, we had an incredible set designer that really transformed the back lot at Universal Studios into what is this amazing world.”
Amazon Studios collaborated with Fremantle as producers on all three episodes, with Wolf & Rothstein additionally producing the H.E.R. and Cudi segments, and Mad Solar as an additional production partner on Cudi’s.
The collaboration within Amazon’s labyrinthine workings was as much of a stretch as the hookup with the outside partners.
“It was pretty much a first in the sense that I think it was really the first time that Prime Video, Music and Amazon Studios all worked together worked together collaboratively from the start on vision and the creative,” says Salke. “And to have the whole company work with artists to amplify those pieces that they put together that are so personal to all of them was what was different about this. …We are committed to aligning the different parts of our organization that are creative, that revolve around storytelling. So whether it be IMDB TV or Amazon Music or Twitch or Books, we aim to work together collaboratively. And after coming into a company that was very siloed in its organizational structure, I think we’ve made great strides in aligning on creative vision across different parts of the company. I think you’ll see a lot more of that even in terms of our collaborations with fashion and other parts of the organization.”
Redington points to how different a concept this is than the two previous Amazon Prime Day music extravaganzas.
“For us, 2018 was the first time we really started to have related events around Prime Day. We had Ariana Grande headline an event in 2018, and we were really happy with that and had great customer feedback. In 2019, we really kind of stepped up a notch: We had Becky G, SZA and Dua Lipa, and then Taylor Swift headlined. It was more of a concert-based livestream that was really successful and continued to get great customer feedback. And in 2020, obviously, was COVID, so we put a pause on doing anything on the entertainment side. And we spent some time thinking about, what’s something that could really cut through and differentiate — and given where we’re at in the world and the unknowns even several months ago of how this was going to shake out, we moved to like, what if we could create an immersive experience, with some really creative artists?”
Partly translated: If it looked like live audiences might still not be a thing yet by mid-June, what sort of music experience wouldn’t seem like it was missing an ingredient without one? Not that there are any regrets about having planned to do something more conceptual that would leave screaming devotees out of the picture. Redington doesn’t want to speculate about whether they might try to top it next year, or simply revert back to performance-based form. “I don’t want to predict the future. I will say that we’re happy with the outcome of this, and I suspect that the fans and our customers will be as well, so I can see this as something that we could repeat in the future. But I’m hesitant to say for sure.”
It’s not content that will necessarily live forever. In 30 days, the three films will go from being free and accessible to anyone with web access to possibly being no place at all. For now anyway, it’s so open that Salke has to correct herself when she uses the word “customers,” since no one has to buy anything or even sign up for anything to see it. The Amazon Studios head points to “the inclusive nature of the content and how we’re reaching out to customers in that way — or not even ‘customers.’ With audiences.” Of course, if you do happen to buy something while the end credits are scrolling, it’ll have been a hell of a loss leader.
The video content is currently available here, and the audio content has also been released as three separate Amazon Music playlists: